Based out of a studio above his garage, Joe Burns’ first portrait series involved 47 portraits of all his neighbors in Fulton. (There is no better way to get acquainted with your neighbors, he said.) Next he traveled to the Bakken oil fields at a time when oil was selling for $110 a barrel, painting the landscape and the workers. Burns’ new exhibition, opening Sept. 6 at the Capella Tower, focuses on portraits of local immigrants, from his neighbor Kassah Trebe to state Rep. Ilhan Omar.
Burns decided to create FACING AMERICA: An Exhibition of Immigrant Portraits in response to negative national rhetoric about immigrants.
“For me, this land is built on immigration. The story of America is immigrants,” he said.
For the portrait series of more than 20 paintings, Burns learned each individual’s story and took about 100 photos of each person.
“I know when I have the right picture,” he said. “They’ve got that expression where you want to guess what they’re thinking.”
The exhibition also shares each immigrant’s personal story.
“I chose to be in part of Facing America to show everyone the normality of immigrants such as myself,” writes Zeinab Ahmed Omar.
Omar was a teenager during the 1991 Somali Civil War and fled the country. She works as a second grade teacher in St. Paul and previously worked with Somali students at Southwest High School.
“I want everyone to know that we too strive to survive,” she writes.
Another immigrant, Maka, sat with Burns for a color study, allowing them time for a four-hour conversation. Maka never planned to leave Zimbabwe, but her husband campaigned with the opposition party and disappeared. Men showed up at her doorstep and demanded to know where he was, although she didn’t know whether he was killed or had escaped the country. They beat her, and when she awoke in the hospital, a friend brought her passport and helped her immediately leave the country.
The Sisters of St. Joseph in Minnesota offered her a guest room, and Maka said she was astonished to see a white woman treat her kindly, a contrast to relations in her old neighborhood.
Another portrait features Victor, whose parents brought him to the U.S. in 1992 seeking better opportunities for themselves and their son. Victor’s father has never earned more than $10 per hour in the U.S., but makes more here as a laborer than he would as an accountant in Mexico, his prior career. Victor is married and lives in Uptown, and he runs more than 100 miles per week training for marathons.
“You can look at him and say, I’ve seen that person before. I can see myself in that expression,” Burns said. “…You can relate to these people, so we don’t just give them labels.”
The paintings go on display Sept. 6 at the Capella Tower’s second floor east lobby at 225 S. 6th St. The show runs through Oct. 31, open weekdays from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
For more information, visit joetburns.com.